Since 1864, more than 45 different men and women have led the borough of Mahanoy City as either burgess or mayor, and no one will follow in their footsteps. When the borough’s home rule charter takes full effect at the end of this year, the mayor’s position will be eliminated, giving current Mayor Dennis Weissner the distinction of being the last to serve in that office. While Weissner will be the last, a look at those who have held the office in the borough’s early years reveals an interesting history of character, tragedy, and accomplishments.
The most familiar story is that of Burgess George C. Major, who died after being shot during a riot in the borough on Oct. 31, 1874, as he tried to restore order between two rival and ethnically divided fire companies that responded to a fire. A suspect was arrested in the assassination but later acquitted. While speculation about other suspects emerged, the killing was most often attributed to the Molly Maguires.
The minutes of a Nov. 5, 1874, special borough council meeting state that Major “was assassinated while in the discharge of his duties, losing his life in defense of law and property.” It also honored him as “a most efficient, fearless and impartial chief magistrate whose services were as valuable as his patriotism and courage were unabounded.”
The borough’s first burgess was John Eichman, who was elected Sept. 11, 1863. His pay for his first year in office was $75, the equivalent of about $2,400 today. At that time, burgesses played a more significant role in borough government than mayors do in Pennsylvania today. The burgess was essentially the chief executive officer, presiding over council meetings, appointing officials, and was responsible for the overall supervision of the local government. The burgess also had judicial powers and could charge people for violating borough ordinances. When the state Legislature redesignated the burgess position as mayor in 1961, the mayor’s role was redefined with fewer legislative, administrative, and judicial powers. Mayors do not have a vote on council, but they do oversee the police department and take on other leadership duties.
Eichman served until 1867 but reprised his role when elected to two separate terms in the 1870s.
Major was not the only burgess to come to a tragic end. Chief Burgess James Becker, who was elected in 1889 and re-elected in 1890, died when a Philadelphia & Reading express train plunged into the Schuylkill River near Shoemakersville, Berks County, killing 21 people and injuring about 30 others. It was called “the most disastrous wreck that occurred on the P&R,” in the Pottsville Daily Republican.
Becker was returning home from the firemen’s convention in Chester when the accident occurred the evening of Sept. 19, 1890, according to newspaper accounts.
In more recent years, two mayors also died while in office – Peter Gutsie and Michael DiBaggio – but from natural causes. Gutsie, owner of Gutsie’s Café and Restaurant, was elected in 1977 and died during his second year in office in April 1979. DiBaggio was elected in 1997 and again in 2001. He died in December 2005.
One burgess’ daughter was lucky to escape death when a revolver accidentally discharged and shot her in the abdomen in April 1921. The shooting of Lillian Edwards, 22, occurred in the Schuylkill Railway Co. office in Girardville, where she worked as a stenographer. Edwards, daughter of Chief Burgess William C. Edwards, told authorities she stopped in the car dispatcher’s office to talk to another employee, Paul Boyle, on her way out of the building. A .45 caliber automatic revolver was kept in the office’s desk and, according to a newspaper report, the young men who worked there on occasion would “playfully” point the unloaded gun at each other while threatening to shoot. Unbeknownst to Boyle, someone had loaded the magazine with shells. While Miss Edwards and Boyle talked, he jokingly pointed the gun at her, and it discharged. She was rushed to the hospital but soon recovered. Boyle, who was reported to be friends with Miss Edwards, was exonerated by the victim of any blame in the incident, according to newspaper reports.
As for her father, the burgess, he led a crackdown by police on playing of “crap” and the use of slingshots in Mahanoy City in 1919, and in 1926, opposed borough council’s plan to have vehicles park in the middle of the street close to the tracks instead of near the curb. Drivers were getting confused by the line of parked cars in the middle of the street, according to the Daily News of Mount Carmel. Edwards became burgess in 1914 and served through 1921. He was re-elected and served another term starting in January 1926.
Some burgesses made headlines for more serious reasons.
Frank Wenrich, who served a term starting in March 1872 and was re-elected in 1884, was arrested in on suspicion of being involved in the 1875 Molly Maguire-related massacre in Wiggans patch, outside the borough. Masked and armed men broke into the home of Margaret O’Donnell and killed Ellen McAllister, John Kehoe’s sister-in-law, and Charles O’Donnell, a suspect in previous murders. John Kehoe, accused of being the leader of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in 1878 for the murder of a colliery boss, Frank Langdon, in 1862. Kehoe was pardoned in 1979 by Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp.
Suspicions over who was responsible for the murders include the Molly Maguires who may have wanted to silence a member about another murder, a possible dispute between different Irish factions, the Coal and Iron Police, and the Silliman Guards, part of the state militia who were to help keep the peace in the coal region. Wenrich was a lieutenant in the Silliman guards.
Wenrich, who owned a butcher shop in Mahanoy City, was released after a hearing at which the widow of one of the victims who originally identified him changed her testimony. He later became a Philadelphia policeman. A Civil War veteran, he returned to Schuylkill County in 1891 to be honored with a First Defender medal at a ceremony in Pottsville, the Shenandoah Evening Herald reported at the time.
Wenrich’s son, Willie, died from injuries in what The Press of Philadelphia called “the most serious accident that happened on the P&R railroad.” In November 1878, the engine Gem exploded while stopped at the Mahanoy City station, killing five people. Wenrich and several other boys were checking out the parlor car from outside when it blew up.
Another chief burgess, John Jones, took office in April 1878 but was ousted at a special council meeting in December of that year. “And now Dec23rd (sic) 1878 judgment of ouster against the defendant, and that the said John Jones be altogether excluded from holding or exercising the office of chief burgess of the borough of Mahanoy City by virtue of any supposed election to said office at the election for said borough in the third Tuesday of February 1878,” the meeting minutes read. In a vote at that same meeting to replace Jones, five council members voted to put Jones back in office, but he was replaced by John Eichman.
Chief Burgess Robert Bowman also left office early, resigning under pressure in May 1899, according to The Miners Journal. The newspaper reported that council asked Bowman at a previous meeting to “explain a shortage or resign.”
In 1895, Burgess Henry J. Stern drew headlines of his own after a disturbance on a train. The Evening Herald on March 18, 1895, had headlines of “A BURGESS ON A TOUT,” “Mahanoy City’s officer gets himself into the meshes of the law.” Stern was accused of assaulting a passenger on one of the Lehigh Valley trains, drawing a toy pistol, and using derogatory language about the victim’s heritage. A subsequent article reported that he paid a fine and costs totaling $7.75 and called him “a whole-souled fellow and a good official when he avoids tanglefoot.”
Other burgesses and mayors are remembered for their mark on history.
The borough’s first permanent resident, Emanual Boyer, served in that office. Boyer, who built the Mahanoy House and two brick kilns, was elected in 1871.
Patrick Foley was the longest serving and the last burgess. He served 27 years, from 1934 through 1961. In 1962, William T. Davidson became the borough’s first mayor after the state moved away from the chief burgess role. Davidson served through 1965.
The first woman to be elected mayor did not come until 2009 when Nancy Petritsch won the office. mayor. She served a full term and was elected to a second term in 2013 but resigned in 2015 due to work commitments, according to the Hazleton Standard Speaker. Another woman, Patricia Schnitzius was appointed to fill the unexpired term. She will be the last female mayor of the borough, just as Weissner will be the borough’s last mayor when the home rule charter takes full effect in December.
Under the charter, the borough will have a five-member council, a borough manager, and a secretary/treasurer.
Terry Rang, former editor-in-chief of The Morning Call, Allentown, and a former Pottsville Republican managing editor, volunteers with the Mahanoy Area Historical Society. The facts and details in this article come from regional newspaper archives, borough council meeting minutes, and historical society documents.